The Adventure Begins

 

In mid-May following completion of the spring semester, Craig drove me to the Baltimore-Washington International Airport for the departure to Rome. I don’t think he really believed I was going to go through with this until that morning. I knew he didn’t embrace the idea of my being away all summer, (remember, we were supposed to be spending time together?), but he hadn’t stopped me from going. I kept reminding myself that he was the one who suggested I follow my passion.

           The other students were there when we arrived. None of us really knew each other well and living together would be interesting—like a real life “Big Brother” episode.

           David, quiet, lean and dark-haired was wearing jeans and a t-shirt that said “Italian Lover” on the back. His mom, dad, and sister were there to see him off. Boisterous Ben, who looked more like a tall, blond teddy bear, was there with his parents. Brandi, blonde and beautiful with a big smile was there with her mom and her two young children, a boy about eight years old and a daughter about four years old. Kirsten, a stately, darker blonde arrived with her boyfriend. Everyone hugged good-bye and the head of HCAT had her assistant take pictures of us.

           Craig didn’t cook, except for the occasional hard boiled egg or baked potato in the microwave, but I had left him two giant pans of lasagna and had carefully labeled operating instructions on everything from the oven to the washer and dryer. I walked him through the military commissary and had pointed out the dry cleaners and the vet for the dogs. I assured him he would be fine without me and promised to e-mail. I reflected later that he was either going to really appreciate all I’d been doing or discover that he didn’t really need me. I hoped it was the former.

            We departed forNew York, and after a short layover at JFK, boarded the plane toRome. The flight was long, but we were filled with so much anticipation that we couldn’t sleep. Upon our arrival the following morning, we maneuvered through the immigration lines, retrieved our luggage to take through customs and began searching for a young man named Seth, who was to meet us. None of us knew what he looked like, but five Americans looking lost were easy for him to spot.  Short, well-tanned and easy-going, Seth sauntered up.

            “How was the trip?” he asked as he shook hands with each of us. “Is anyone hungry or thirsty? We can get something from the snack bar before we get on the van.”

            We each withdrew Euros from the ATM machine and selected something to take with us on the trip to Positano. Seth led us to the van which was parked curbside and helped us load our luggage. Originally fromAnnapolis, he worked for a global education company and had helped set up the internship program for HCAT.  He spoke fluent Italian and would be our contact and primary resource while we were inItaly.

            The southern edge of the Sorrento Peninsula south of Naples is called the costiera amalfitana, orAmalfiCoast, and is distinguished by the majestic Lattari Mountains (1400 m) that plunge to the sea.

           There are three islands just off the coast of Positano, Li Galli, which were supposedly the home of the Sirens in Homer’s epic about Odysseus. Prior to the mid-20th century, the towns could only be reached by treacherous mountain paths on mules or by sea.  Today a tortuous winding road connects the towns of Positano, Praiano, Amalfi, Minori and Maiori.  As our van rounded a corner, we got our first glimpse of the town.

            At one time Positano was an isolated fishing village where lemons and olives were cultivated in its terraced gardens.  Its primary industry was maritime trade during the 16th and 17th centuries.  Ancient olive and citrus trees still hug the hillsides, but the only boats in residence are small rowboats for the local fisherman or ferries that arrive brimming with tourists. 

            Our apartment sat in a hollow in the center of the village, accessed by walking down more than 200 wide stone steps. It was spacious, clean and actually larger than I imagined it would be.  There was a combination living/dining room, small kitchen, three bedrooms, and a bathroom with a washing machine in one corner. The walls were white-washed stucco and the floors were rosy-colored tile. There were clean towels in the bathroom, the beds were made with fresh sheets and the kitchen was furnished with pots, pans and eating utensils. Our louvered front door was draped with mosquito netting (I think that is supposed to tell us something). Clotheslines strung from fragrant lemon trees in the front yard and our “lawn” was comprised of rich soil planted with evenly spaced basil plants.

            We began to unpack and get settled in the apartment. David and Ben shared the largest bedroom, because it had twin beds.  Brandi took the medium sized room with the double bed and I agreed to take the smallest room (I swear, it was 4 feet x 10 feet and my bed is so narrow, that it is more like a cot than a twin bed.  (Oh well, it will certainly be cozy.) My room didn’t have a closet, so I stuck two self-adhesive hooks to the walls.  I put clothes hangers on one (which later in the week fell down when the self-adhesive hook gave up its sticky qualities) and hung a small mirror by its handle on the other.  I could only see one eye at a time, but that would have to do.  My large suitcase was stacked next to the dresser, but there was just enough room to squeeze by to get into bed. I placed a travel alarm next to the lamp on the bedside table and was done (much easier than unpacking an entire household of belongings inAnnapolishad been). Kirsten slept on our sofa the first night, but was going to be sharing an employee apartment in Ravello near her hotel. 

            The next morning, Seth picked us up in the van and took us toSalerno, an hours’ drive east of Positano, where we stayed at a youth hostel in an old convent for two nights while we waited for work permits. There weren’t a lot of tourists in Salerno, and we were immediately immersed in Italian language and culture. The hostel was only a couple of blocks from the waterfront and I took a walk one evening while the other students went in search of their first real Italian pizza. It was very peaceful along the waterfront which was bordered by a park.  Families strolled in the twilight and I watched from a park bench. As darkness draped the beach, I decided to return to the hostel. The next morning we were returning to Positano to visit all the hotels, meet the chefs and tour the kitchens. 

 

            The first hotel we visited was San Pietro, where Brandi would be working. Etched into the cliffs on the edge of Positano, San Pietro was probably the most luxurious hotel I have ever seen.  Intricately laid marble floors, highly polished wood and glass framed water views from the lobby. Brandi’s chef was Belgian and could speak several languages, although no one else in her kitchen spoke any English.  She was delighted to be working as a pastry chef and was quite experienced so it was a good match.

            Ben would be working at a fine dining establishment in Positano, Ristorante Max, which boasted an extensive wine cellar and art gallery.  The proprietor of the restaurant was a close friend of Seth’s.  The kitchen was small and Ben would be working with three other chefs, who were all cheerful and robust. There was a very relaxed atmosphere to his kitchen. Ben was a very casual person, so it also looked like a good match.    We were treated to an amazing lunch that first day before we proceeded to tour the other restaurants where we would be working.

            Le Sirenuse, in the center of town where David would be, and Hotel Santa Caterina in Amalfi where I would be, fell into the quiet elegance category.  They are both members of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World.  David seemed very pleased with his chef and the facilities at Le Sirenuse. Apparently no other culinary school in the world, except one in Holland, sends culinary interns to the Amalfi Coast. We’d been told how lucky we were, but it was just starting to sink in. 

            Palazzo Sasso in Ravello, where Kirsten would work, was also exquisite with gardens, fountains and views across the valley towards the sea.  Her chef also spoke English but was very formal and stern.  He explained to me that Kirsten would be treated the same as all the other employees.  I learned later from Seth that the chef had thought I was a teacher/chaperone because of my age. As we toured the kitchen, we noticed that everyone was working very hard and no one was talking to each other.  Kirsten had wanted to work in the savory side of the kitchen, but her chef informed her that she would be working with the pastry chef. She is normally a very confident young woman, but I could see doubt cross her face.  This might not work out very well.

            After our tour of all the hotels was completed, we dropped Kirsten off at the employee apartment where she would be living in Ravello and the rest of us returned to Positano.  Ben and David walked into town to pick up some essential food supplies (olive oil, garlic and toilet paper) as well as bottled water and ingredients for a pasta dish which we all shared for dinner.  Hmm, living with three other chefs might not be so bad.

            Later that evening I wrote postcards to my family to let them know that I had arrived safely and that we would all be starting work the next day. As I climbed into bed and turned out the lamp, I reflected on a line I’d read once about how the “real” you is the one you are when no one else is around.  Here I was 58 years old trying to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I wonder who the real me was going to be?

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